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State encourages employers to hire people with disabilities for ‘Better Bottom Line”

Maureen McCollum, Wisconsin Public Radio

The state is ramping up efforts to help jobseekers that have a disability. It's part of a national initiative called the "Better Bottom Line".

Robert Stack was the first employee hired at Great Harvest Bread Company in La Crosse. He assembled all the tables and chairs before the restaurant opened a few months ago. Now, he kneads bread.

Stack had been out of work for a while, until staff from the Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) thought Great Harvest would be a good fit for him. Now, Stack says, he can't imagine his life without the job.

“It'd be significantly different. I needed to get a little bit of confidence and stuff like that,” Stack said.

Stack is one of the 17,000 people with a disability that the DVR worked with last year. The agency hopes to work with an additional 6,000 people this year and connect them with a job that's right for them.

Gov. Scott Walker declared 2014 the year of the “Better Bottom Line,” tying the state in with the national initiative aimed at hiring more people with disabilities.

The program includes incentives for employers. The state will pay for job training and temporarily fund wages; there are federal tax incentives, as well.

Amy Studden is a DVR business services consultant. She helps connect employers with workers, like Stack. Studden says everyday, she has to break down stereotypes and prove to employers that they're overlooking an untapped workforce.

“There's a stereotypical view of someone with a disability,” she said. “Unless someone is acclimated to the idea or really understands that our DVR jobseekers are qualified, talented individuals. Statistically, individuals with disabilities have less sick time, show up for work, are determined.”

Other DVR officials say workers with disabilities will be instrumental in closing the skills gap in the state.